- POSTED: 28 Dec 2013 06:29
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The first UN peacekeeping reinforcements arrived in South Sudan, where the government is said to have agreed an immediate ceasefire after nearly two weeks of heavy fighting with rebels.
JUBA: The first UN peacekeeping reinforcements arrived on Friday in South Sudan, where the government is said to have agreed an immediate ceasefire after nearly two weeks of heavy fighting with rebels.
Seventy-two members of a police contingent, moved from the Democratic Republic of Congo, arrived in the country, according to a UN spokesman in New York. They are the spearhead of what is to be 6,000 extra troops voted this week by the UN Security Council.
Once all the reinforcements are in, they will almost double the size of the UNMISS mission in the country to a total of up to 12,500 soldiers and 1,300 police.
That mission has so far been badly stretched as fighting has claimed thousands of lives since erupting December 15.
The UN says over 120,000 people have fled their homes, including 63,000 sheltering in UN peacekeeping bases, and neighbouring nations and world powers feared South Sudan was sliding into civil war.
The UN reinforcements are flowing in as East African leaders acting as peace brokers announced that the government of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir had agreed to a ceasefire right away.
But the de facto leader of the rebels, Riek Machar - whom Kiir accuses of having tried to mount a coup after being sacked as vice president in July - has left ambiguous his own commitment to the ceasefire.
In a satellite telephone interview with the BBC from an undisclosed located, Machar said a mechanism was required to monitor any ceasefire.
"For the ceasefire to be credible there is need for a mechanism, or else we will be deceiving ourselves," he said.
He also demanded that Kiir release all 11 of his political allies who were arrested right at the beginning of the unrest, while acknowledging that two of them had been freed.
The regional leaders brokering the end to hostilities have given Machar and Kiir four days to hold face-to-face talks and halt fighting, pledging unspecified "further action" if the civil war continued.
Since it started, the fighting has spread to half of South Sudan's 10 states, with the violence taking on an ethnic dimension, pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer community and atrocities reported to have been carried out by both sides.
The warring forces are locked in fierce battles for control of several strategic oil-producing areas in the north of the country, which only won independence from Sudan in 2011.
Witnesses have reported heavy clashes in Malakal, capital of the oil-producing Upper Nile State, which both sides claimed to control.
A rebel spokesman in the area, Moses Ruai Lat, told AFP that "the whole of Malakal" was now in the hands of Machar's loyalists.
But South Sudanese Defence Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk dismissed that claim as "disinformation" and asserted that Machar's loyalists "are no longer in Malakal - the town is under full government control".
The South Sudanese army - officially known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) - was reinforcing its presence in the town, he said.
The United Nations has rushed "critical assets" to the country, where it says it is struggling to cope with the dual role of protecting as well as feeding and sheltering terrified civilians.
Witnesses have reported massacres, summary executions and rapes, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has promised those responsible would be "held accountable".
China, which is the main buyer of South Sudan's oil, has also said it would soon dispatch its special envoy for African affairs to the country.
Crude prices have edged higher because of the fighting as oil production, which accounts for more than 95 percent of South Sudan's economy, was dented by the violence and oil workers evacuated.